How Kentucky wins and covers: When asked what he learned from losing to Kansas and Bill Self four years ago in the NCAA championship game, coach John Calipari simply stated “Make free throws”.
For Kentucky, tonight’s message is simple – Play your best. If the Wildcats do this they win a coveted eighth national championship and Ashley Judd and the rest of Big Blue Nation can once again convey the superiority of ‘Cats basketball.
This Kentucky contingent has shown few outward signs of giving into pressure, but they have never been here before. The Wildcats have been the best team in the country since all us learned just how talented they were, individually and collectively.
While Coach Cal has left baggage at previous stops and has his critics, there is one undeniable aspect he brings to the table, he is able to get 18 and 19-year old super recruits that are used to having the ball in their hands and scoring and convincing them that playing defense is the best way to win and get to the next level. That is an absurdly under-appreciated skill he has, of which he has not gotten his due.
Coach Calipari will double-down on Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, if for no other reason than to help prevent Anthony Davis from getting into foul trouble. Davis could certainly play him straight up, but if the officials decide to call it close, he could pick up fouls before anyone has a chance to settle in.
Look for Kentucky to deploy this in two ways on Robinson, one from another player coming over from the lane or have the nearest on-ball defender to run at him. The real goal for the Wildcats is to make Robinson a slow decision-maker and make him “find” a teammate to pass it to and have Wildcats defensive players read his eyes and get a half step start towards a possible steal or deflected pass.
When Calipari had Memphis in this position four years ago and John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in the Final Four two years ago, each team’s fatal flaw was exposed. The Tigers mediocre free throw shooting caught up to them and the Wildcats poor shooting from distance did them in. Based on the body of work Kentucky has put forth, they can overcome these issues with guards Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller.
Teague was supposed to be the weak link against Louisville’s pressure and he singularly was the reason Kentucky built a first half lead. Teague has learned to be like a racing bike, able to go at variable speeds without notice. Lamb shoots 47 percent from anywhere on the floor and drains 83 percent from the charity stripe. Miller is not a point guard or center, but can do everything else when called upon and has Clark Kellogg “spurt-ability” to change games.
Once this tournament is over, it is presently expected Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be turning professional and at worse be in the top three of the NBA draft. Both are uncommon talents who have suppressed their abilities for the good of the team. Kidd-Gilchrist in particular could be a star tonight since he will likely be matched against Travis Relaford, who is a good, but not a dynamic scorer, giving his a chance to seek opportunity with larceny in his heart.
Since an early season benching, Terrence Jones has used his full skill set. Jones will find himself matched up on Robinson often enough and though this might sound like a mismatch, the ‘Cats sophomore is quicker and has a big enough body not be overpowered by the Kansas big man. When Davis plays Robinson, Jones has the size and length to bother his lines of vision and muscle the ball out of his hands.
This is Kentucky’s game to win and Calipari said it best, “For this game, all I keep telling them is, ‘Let’s be at our best. We’ll deal with the results.'”
How Kansas covers and maybe wins: If this game was being played by computers, Kansas would really have a heck of a chance since many different models have Kentucky winning anywhere from two points to six, or in other words, covering the spread.
But this game will be played in a huge dome, down in New Orleans. There is little doubt Kentucky has the better team, but the Jayhawks have factors in their favor and have to exploit them.
Tom Robinson is the focal point of the Kansas offense. Everything in the half court Kansas does always runs more smoothly thru the 6-10 junior. Kentucky will look to double team Robinson in the low blocks, which sets up two options for the Jayhawks to take advantage of. This starts with Robinson catching and making an immediate decision to take the ball to the basket the best way he sees fit or “feeling” the double team and finding the right open shooter within his 180 degrees of vision. Having seen Kansas frequently, Robinson is not a good passer when forced to find a teammate AFTER the double has been set on him.
Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson have to have efficient offensive production and hit big shots when called upon. Each will have a different responsibility, yet each is equally important. Taylor runs the Kansas offense and is their leader in the transition offense. Bill Self’s squad cannot run with Kentucky, but they can play in a fashion where their requirement is to match transition points with the Wildcats, which is certainly possible because of they have strong finishers and Calipari’s club can be delinquent in this area.
Johnson has become this team’s big shot-maker in this tournament and that will have to continue.
Jeff Withey has to play to his strength’s, which are playing defense around the basket and create space for himself in the lane to take feeds for dunks. As we saw against Ohio State, Withey does not catch passes well at or below his waist. The best way to use Withey in the post area is to feed him the ball up high and if his defender plays his right shoulder, use the drop-step to the left and take the ball to rim or set up option within his line of vision to find open teammate.
Though Kansas wants to win the game, they have virtually no pressure on them. Nobody expected them to be here and the trademark Kansas offensive-pressure they put on teams (the Jayhawks have only surpassed 65 points once in this tournament) has been replaced with defensive intensity, grittiness and trust.
Even if Kentucky has a 10-point halftime lead, Kansas’ players have kept getting off the deck to win games and it has been several years since we have had an upset in the title game that everyone remembers. Coach Self will tell his players to enjoy the moment and understand they only have to beat top-ranked Kentucky once to make history.
3DW Line – Kentucky by 5